Back in the Barn with Julie Richards

2004 Olympic team bronze medalist Julie Richards burst back onto the upper-level eventing scene last fall with a big win at the Dutta Corp Fair Hill International CCI2* and subsequently landed a slot on the 2015 USEF High Performance National Training List. We caught up with Julie at her farm in Newnan, Georgia, to learn more about her formula for success.

Julie works with a student in the dressage ring. Photo by Leslie Threlkeld Julie works with a student in the dressage ring. Photo by Leslie Threlkeld

Julie Richards was sitting on a stunning blood bay in the large dressage ring by the barn, quietly watching a dark bay trot on the lunge in the gravel parking lot below. Dismounting as I approached, she spoke briefly to the vet, and then introduced me to Splish, a half-sister to Fernhill Splash (get it?).

In the barn, Julie handed Splish off to her working students. Anna Weatherford had come all the way from Colorado to spend her Christmas holiday with Julie. Bailey Wilson, originally from Vermont, was the newest of the group. The third, Alese Lyle, has been a mainstay at the farm for some time. “If she quits, I’ll quit too,” Julie said.

The aisle was crowded with students, dogs and at least one goat. A dry erase board opposite the wash stall listed each horse and its schedule for the day and upcoming weekend. “I’m going to help Ivie and then Sher. Walk these guys, and then after that we’ll do a big jump group.” Then Julie turned to me and we wandered outside into the wind.

Nurturing Root and Branch

Julie’s modest barn houses around 30 horses. There are a few boarders it but mainly holds horses in training. Another six-stall barn is located by her house in the adjacent neighborhood.

“I grew up here,” Julie said of the 50-acre property still owned by her mother, Pat Burns. “We moved to the farm in 1971. My parents slowly added acreage. It’s not big, rolling, massive hills and fields like in Virginia and up north, but it’s great for what I need to do. I get to be with my family, raise my kids; the school is down the road. It works.”

Since returning to the family farm from Atlanta five years ago, Julie has been systematically making her own improvements as funds allowed. Looking down at her feet she said, “I put a lot into this arena. It’s masonry sand and fiber from the Pollards.”

More recently Julie had been upgrading the cross-country schooling fences. Hugh Lochore, course designer at Chattahoochee Hills and Red Hills, mapped out the course and installed some of the permanent structures, while Rob Mobley built the portables. Julie’s especially delighted with the small but functional water jump and the pending purchase of a hot walker.

“I’m working on the facility, and I don’t really want it to be all fancy. Our barn is so plain, but the horses are so happy in there with their heads out the door, and they’re all in there together. I can’t afford to make it like the showcase barns, but I put the money in the footing and building the cross country. And I’m trying to import good horses that we can ride and train well and go on and do their job.”

Fernhill Splish is a half-sister to Fernhill Splash, who is currently competing at Intermediate with Julie. Photo by Leslie Threlkeld

Fernhill Splish is a half-sister to Fernhill Splash, who is currently competing at Intermediate with Julie. Photo by Leslie Threlkeld.

Connecting Horses and People

Julie’s current business is multi-functional. In addition to her horses in training and a thriving lesson program, she has become a known resource for quality European imports.

Take a quick look at any horse trials entry list and you will almost always find multiple horses sporting the Fernhill prefix. And it is Carol Gee of Fernhill Sport Horses that Julie says has likely been the biggest influence on her career.

“She’s the most positive person I’ve ever been around,” Julie said. “She’s built an incredible business … she’s taught me to stand behind what I’m selling.”

Julie’s working relationship with Carol has been fruitful. Early in her career Julie had bought a number of great horses from Carol that went on to be successful at the upper levels, including Connaught (Phillip Dutton) and Kingpin (Mike Winter).

Julie’s overseas buying trips became less frequent while she raised two small children (Genevieve is now 11 and Adam is 9). Then as Julie’s lesson program grew and her students began needing horses, she reconnected with Carol.

“One of my young riders needed a horse so we went to Fernhill and Ireland and traveled all around and had a great time and saw as many horses as you could see. I think the first time we saw 50 horses in three days,” Julie said.

She and Carol have maintained their friendship since then and built a healthy business relationship. “We’re always looking at videos together and bringing over ones that we think are useful for somebody or for me to keep going with,” Julie said. “Gosh, I can’t even remember how many we’ve imported. Probably 60 at least.”

One of the new cross-country fences that leads into the jumping arena. Photo by Leslie Threlkeld.

Focus on Education

While sales is a major component of Julie’s business, the success of her students is very important to her. She teaches Beginner through Advanced eventers and is a mentor to many ambitious young riders who are now making a name for themselves, like Alex Green and Jenny Caras.

“So many kids and people come in and out of here every week. I try to do what they need and what they want to do,” Julie said. “I have retired school teachers that have the goal of doing their first Preliminary, and it’s so fun and exciting to get them there and have them reach a goal they’ve had for 40 years.

“(When students succeed) it makes you feel like you’ve got a program in place that is useful.”

Julie’s lesson program benefits from her own interest in continuing education. “I really believe in education, and I try to bring in clinicians all the time and get all of us to learn. If you quit learning and you think you know it all, you’re really in trouble.”

Phillip Dutton comes to the farm three to six times per year depending on his schedule. Capt. Mark Phillips, who was Julie’s coach through two Olympic Games, comes when he can also, which Julie says has been hugely rewarding.

Now with a win at the Dutta Corp Fair Hill Hill International CCI2* aboard Urlanmore Beauty capping off 2014 and being named to the USEF National Training List, Julie has a lot to look forward to in 2015. However, she’s not looking to leave behind all that she’s built at home.

“I would love to ride on the team again, but it’s not my primary focus,” she said. “It’s training the horses and getting them to the competitions that they need to go to and keeping them sound. I have a lot here to take care of and manage. Every day is fun teaching these kids and having my own kids grow up here.

“It’s a hard life. You have to totally love it if you’re going to work this hard and be out in the weather,” she laughed, alluding to the cloudy skies above. “It’s been a great sport for me. It’s shaped my life along the way and keeps bringing me back to reality.”

In part II, we’ll meet some of Julie’s top horses and find out what she’s looking to gain during the 2015 training sessions with David O’Connor.